Next Thursday will mark the 20th anniversary of the highlight of American Jewish activism, the massive rally in Washington, D.C. on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Looking back, there is a wistful quality to the event because the unity of cause reflected that day has not been equaled since by our community.
An estimated 250,000 people gathered on the Washington Mall on Dec. 6, 1987, a bitter cold Sunday afternoon, on the eve of a White House meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. American Jews came to plead for the freedom of their brothers and sisters in the USSR to emigrate.
It was the largest Jewish demonstration ever held in the U.S., and as American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris, who served as
national coordinator for the rally, reflects in an Opinion column (see page 23), “it was a moment in Jewish history” because it showed “what American Jews can achieve when we choose to act in unison.”
Historians say that Reagan used the rally to pressure Gorbachev; the fact is that soon after the Washington summit, the Kremlin gates opened wide and hundreds of thousands of Jews and their families left for the West, primarily Israel and the U.S.
In truth, the Soviet Jewry movement had its share of in-fighting and turf battles among American Jewish groups and between them and the government of Israel, which wanted the new immigrants to make aliyah rather than settle in the West. And it was the persistent efforts of Natan Sharansky, recently released after almost a decade as a prisoner of conscience in Russian jails, that won the day. It was he who pushed for a massive rally in Washington over the reservations of Jewish leaders who worried about a small turnout in the dead of winter.
The ‘87 rally was a turning point in Jewish activism, a flexing of muscles that proved to the world — and to ourselves — that we had the potential to harness our efforts and further our cause.
The problem has been that over the last two decades we have had not the kind of common cause that the Soviet Jewry movement represented. Israel, which once served as the unifier in our community, is now a source of some of our biggest rifts – between those who push for compromise and concessions and those who urge holding firm, all in the name of peace.
The divisions prompted by the Annapolis meeting this week underscore those ongoing tensions.
“We Are One” was an effective slogan for fund-raising, but it has never characterized our community, nor should it. We pride ourselves on our diversity, part of the spirit of democracy.
If the Mideast negotiations that began this week progress, they surely will test our red-line positions about borders, the right of return and Jerusalem. In the meantime, we can take pride in our community’s efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry over a 25-year period that culminated in the Washington rally 20 years ago. And we can look to that event as a model of communal action — if and when we have the will and consensus to emulate it.